Leader Blues

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

EDITORIAL >> A monument to bad timing

The very official Arkansas Highway Funding Task Force is getting ready to hand the legislature and Gov. Huckabee a plan to borrow $1 billion for a highway-building program. We cannot imagine a greater monument to bad timing.
Had they followed the small stories in the public prints, the members of the task force would know that earlier in the week voters in neighboring Oklahoma voted about 6 to 1 against higher taxes to pay for repairing and replacing bridges and roads. Motorists would have paid four cents more for gasoline and eight cents more for diesel to bring fuel taxes up to Arkansas’ levies. Those little imposts do not compare with the gouging by the oil companies in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but voters are not known for grasping subtleties.

The Highway Funding Task Force at least had the gumption not to recommend fuel tax increases — not yet, anyway — but it will not be able to find suitable substitutes that will raise $100 million a year in new revenue, the approximate amount that will be needed to amortize a $1 billion debt.

One of its options has merit: a graduated tax on heavy commercial trucks. The 18-wheelers carrying 40 tons are the ones tearing up the highways and they do not carry their share of the burden of maintaining roads and bridges.

But the transportation and shipping lobbies have always proven too powerful to tax justly. Ask Bill Clinton, who tried to do it in 1979. The lobby was so powerful, especially in western Arkansas, that he finally capitulated and settled the tax burden instead on the owners of family cars and pickups. The decision defeated him in the next election.

Another proposition, a tire tax, would produce pitifully small sums. Taking a fourth of the sales tax on new vehicles is a nonstarter. It would take nearly $60 million a year away from the public schools, which the Arkansas Supreme Court is apt to say are already woefully underfunded. Repealing the credit on insurance premium taxes will trample on big toes, too. They should forget that option.

Gov. Huckabee has promised to call a special session when the task force produces its report, and the legislators and others on the task force seem to be counting on the Supreme Court to order a new start on paying for a constitutional school system, which would give additional cover for the Huckabee to call a special session.

But the schools are the crisis that begs for the state’s attention.
It would be a recognition of what is right as well as what is politically practical if Gov. Huckabee declared now that in deference to the children there will be no session on highways and that contractors and suppliers must wait for another day.

He might remember not only Oklahoma’s monumental defeat of a highway program but also Gov. Jim Guy Tucker’s similarly lopsided defeat at a highway bond election only months before Huckabee took office in 1996. And Tucker offered a progressive road program in a time of relatively low gasoline prices.